Wednesday, September 23, 2009

A weekend in Canada -cooking

I think all clichés are born out of wisdom. In this case, “Be careful what you wish for” comes to mind. “Don’t bite off more than you can chew” is another. “Too stupid to know any better” is also applicable. I’m referring to being approached by some friends and asked if I’d take care of the cooking for a large party; a very large party. And what rolled off my tongue? “Of course. Sure. No problem. It’ll be fun.” And it was. Here’s the story.

Karen and Harold are my winter neighbors. They have a cute little place down here in Palm Harbor where they retreat to escape the evil winter weather of their home in Wynona, Ontario. Both former small business owners, they really are enjoying their retirement. Karen approached me back in January and, knowing my passion for all things food, suggested I cater Harold’s 70th birthday party in August which was to be held at their home in Canada. I accepted the challenge without hesitation and didn’t think about it again for months. Then around the end of May, Karen called and wanted to know if I was serious because the plans were well under way. There was a theme, color scheme, live music, dancing and of course, lot’s of food. “I’m in.” Now things were getting serious for me and my nerves were getting a bit jittery but I’d made the commitment. It was time to buckle down and figure out what to do.

I began with menu planning. Karen and I spoke pretty constantly about the details and we settled on finger foods. With a Caribbean theme, I was filled with ideas that needed to be narrowed down. Karen’s strong aversion to cilantro made it difficult initially because I don’t know many (if any) island style dished without cilantro but that was a fun part of the challenge. While I was quite concerned about execution, the creative aspect of dish creation has always been my forte. We came up with 7 items and there would be over 1200 individual servings. Yikes! What had I committed to? I was definitely getting nervous.

I landed in Buffalo, NY on a Friday afternoon. Harold’s daughter, Tammi, picked me up and we headed across the border and up the Qweensway. After a quick stop at the grocery for the last minute perisahbles, we pulled up to their home. Karen had already done most of the shopping from the list I’d sent her. What a marvelous home they have. Both spacious and charming, the place is the perfect party house. There’s a huge wrap around deck with an exceptionally large and well groomed back yard. But the one thing that stands out is the view. From their back porch, you walk about 30 yards and you are standing on a seawall that overlooks Lake Ontario. Directly across the Lake and about 30 miles as the crow flies you see the skyline of Toronto with the CN Tower being prominent. It was breathtaking, to say the least. My room was to be on the second floor with picture windows running the length of the room looking out over the lake. I had little time for sleep but this was a peaceful room.

After getting my bearings on where everything was located, I immediately went to work. I had taken the time to map out a day by day food prep plan. This would turn out to be invaluable. For Friday night, my biggest challenge was to get 12 chickens roasted for a homemade chicken salad with avocado. Using Karen’s and her neighbor’s ovens, I got that done in a few hours but now there was meat pullin’ to be done. This is where I began to realize what a daunting few days ahead. 12 steaming chicken’s sat before me and I realized that if it normally takes me 10 minutes to do one chicken, I was going to be at this a couple of hours. That’s when the first of what would be many volunteers stepped up and the wheels really began spinning. Karen’s neighbor, Donna, and other neighbor, 12-year-old Cailin, stepped in and between the 3 of us we were done in short order. This is where the bells when off that I’d need a lot more help than I thought.

The next morning I was up well before the sun and hard at work. The clock was ticking. I had about 30 hours to go. As morning wore on (and my 2 day back ache began), several of Karen’s friends began showing up and offering to pitch in. Thank god. Without Kaley, Lynda, Liz, Tammie, Erin, David, John, Lawrence, Pam, Elise, Cole,Kevin, Cailin, Donna, Deepika, Marie, Brenda, Kenn, and Alice I would never have been able to chop, dice, slice, cook, skewer, roast, bake or sauté any of the items by myself. The plan was simple but time consuming. I began at about 5 AM by thinly slicing and pickling the red onions for the roast beef and brie sandwiches (not really Caribbean, but a request from Harold). Then there were the pounds of scallops for the scallop cups (a vibrant scallop salad served in lettuce cups). I sautéed for what seemed like hours. And so it went, on an on, all day long. I made several fresh sauces (remoulade for Shrimp Po’ Boys, Horseradish for roast beef), relishes (pineapple jalapeño for skirt steak) and marinades (Meyer’s rum and OJ for skirt steak). All the while my troop of volunteers, continued to do all of the prep work. From my kitchen view over the lake, I watched the sun rise and set while we continued to work. With Saturday’s chores finally behind us –and my back screaming, we sat and drank. I’m not sure what time I went to bed but I remember thinking it was too late.

Now it’s Sunday. Party day. With my Saturday to-do list completed, I turned to the Sunday morning portion. Raspberry tarts with homemade vanilla whipped cream were the first order of business. While making this, the rest of my enlistees showed up and none too soon. It was assembly time. I realized that I had several crews working on specific tasks and my role was changing from cook to conductor. I demonstrated to each crew how I wanted each item put together; how to assemble the hundreds of different sandwiches, skewer the 200 caprese salad skewers, fill the 120 scallop cups, top the tarts, flour the hundreds of shrimp for the Po’ Boys and so on.

Next I set up my outside station. The plan was to grill the island skirt steak and make the fried shrimp at the point of service so that we had 2 fresh hot items on the line. As party time approached, the food began coming to the buffet tables outside. When the clock struck 1 PM, everything was in place and the guests began to arrive. Folks dug in. Steel drum and island music played. The sun was high in the sky with just enough occasional overcast to make the day perfectly comfortable.

I grilled the marinated steaks and handed them off to be sliced and plated with the salsa. I also fried the shrimp that had been soaked in soda water then coated with a seasoned flour and cornstarch mix. This provided a light and crispy crust on the shrimp that tasted as perfect as any Po’ Boy I’d had on my many visits to New Orleans.

After just a couple of hours, my service was complete and I was ready to just enjoy. My nerves had melted hours ago simply because I was too busy. Now I was just running on adrenalin and some wine was in order. I mingled stopping by each table to ask if all was OK and I didn’t hear a negative comment. In fact, humbling compliment was the order of the afternoon.

If I missed the mark on any of these dishes, no one shared it with me. I did make a couple of mistakes that didn’t translate to the taste of the food. Notably, we had a lot of food; too much. While I did stick to the small plate theme, each item was probably too big so folks filled up. We ended up sending lots of food home with guests. Whole trays of sandwiches were destined for office break rooms on Monday.
What a terrific experience this was for me. I had fun even though I didn’t leave a 100 yard radius for my 3 days in Canada. A wise person once said, “If you make a living doing what you love, you’ll never work a day in your life.” Now, I don’t make a living doing this but, as hard and long as we worked for 3 days, it never felt like a chore. I can’t wait for Karen and Harold to get back to Florida so we can reminisce about that great weekend.

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